Hugo Hymas and Louise Alder in ‘Semele’ © Éric Larrayadieu Cadmus/Somnus

Even in 1744 Handel's Semele left its audience nonplussed. The premiere was given in concert during Lent but the story is anything but religious — “a bawdy Opera”, complained one Handel's closest associates.

Is Semele an opera or not? Nobody has ever settled the issue, though a skittish production around ten years ago that portrayed the work as an adulterous romp in the House of Windsor, corgis and all, made an amusing case for it.

When John Eliot Gardiner took Semele on a European tour last year with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, it was in a semi-staged production that was a very workable compromise. This is a live recording of the London performance at Alexandra Palace, arriving as a digital release now, with physical CDs to follow in October.

Album cover of ‘Handel: Semele’ by Monteverdi Choir

It is nearly 40 years since Gardiner first recorded Semele. He still trims some numbers, mostly in the first act, though not as radically as before, and the performance speeds along. Where there had previously been a decorous oratorio, there is now a pulsating opera, and the wit of the drama sparkles.

The cast is headed by Louise Alder as a bubbly, playful Semele, the mortal who yearns for “endless pleasure” in Jupiter's embrace. Her nemesis is jealous Juno, sung with Bette Davis-like outrage by Lucile Richardot. Hugo Hymas is a boyish Jupiter, mellifluous in “Where'er you walk”, and Emily Owen, Carlo Vistoli and Gianluca Buratto hold their own as Iris, Athamas and Cadmus. 

★★★★☆

Handel: Semele’ is released by SDG

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